LONDON (Reuters) - The return of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka to the women’s tour following maternity breaks has focused plenty of attention on what needs to be done to encourage more mothers to play top-level tennis.
Azarenka is calling for more childcare facilities on the regular WTA Tour, while French Open organisers were criticised for not seeding Williams on her return to the event in May following the birth of daughter Alexis Olympia last September.
The common belief was that as the American had been world number one when she started pregnancy leave in January 2017, the 23-times Grand Slam winner should have benefited from some form of protected ranking.
Wimbledon addressed the situation by seeding her 25th, a considerable promotion from her official ranking of 181st.
The issue of setting up more on-site childcare facilities, however, is unlikely to be resolved as quickly.
The WTA’s senior director for athlete assistance, Kathy Martin, explained that the body’s responsibility was to ensure the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of its athletes rather than interfere in something “as personal as childcare”.
“Childcare needs to be done properly with expert people who are trained and qualified and insured to do that,” Martin, who has been with the WTA for more than two decades, told Reuters in an interview.
“We’ve found over time, most of the players... would either find their own nanny or maybe bring someone else with them. It’s just like the rest of their team, as it’s not like we are giving them a coach for the week,”
“We do have crèches at some events... but not everyone even uses those.
“Most women who come back have finished breastfeeding but there is capacity at all our tournaments to provide private space if they want to say express milk or practical things like that.”
Williams admitted that while she would like to see more daycare options on the tour, she would not use them at this time because “Olympia is really young”.
Martin instead highlighted that the tour’s “travelling troop of physiotherapists, massage therapists, medical advisors and psychologists” were on hand to assist any player during or after pregnancy — and those services got used much more regularly.
It is those forms of assistance that is also allowing players such as Williams to take a career break in her mid-30s and come back.
In addition, it has also ensured that burnout cases which blighted the sport in the 1980s and 90s — with Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin both quitting tennis before their 21st birthdays — are almost unheard of in this generation.
“We’ve set up a really good structure with our age eligibility rules and the programmes to educate players as they are coming through the tour,” Martin added.
“We’ve studied this over 20 years and we have significantly increased the career length of our female players, we’ve significantly reduced the burnout rate of the people who have stopped playing before they are aged 22.
“With those factors in place, the age of the top 100 has gone up a little bit and we are delighted that women choosing to have children feel that they can come back and play because their careers are not done.”
With the Wimbledon draw featuring 21 women older than 30 and six mothers, and the fact that no teenager has won a major since a 19-year-old Maria Sharapova captured the 2006 U.S. Open, it seems the WTA has made the right calls to look after the wellbeing of its players.
“It’s a positive development to have players who are older playing longer and it’s lovely that women are feeling empowered to come back as mothers if they choose to,” added Martin.
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar; Editing by John O'Brien